WASHINGTON – The U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall on Oct. 29 became a lecture room for some current lawmakers to learn about the “old school” of bipartisan House leadership.
It was noted as a time — more than 20 years ago — when then-House Speaker Thomas Foley, a Washington Democrat, and Minority Leader Bob Michel, an Illinois Republican, “made things happen … found good ways to solve difficult problems and made the House a working institution.”
Michel, now 90, was giving the most memorable speech at a moving memorial service for Foley, who died Oct. 18 at 84 from complications from strokes.
Though President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton spoke, as did the current House and Senate leaders and others, it was Michel who delivered the main underlying message about the need for Congress, especially the House, to change before its partisan deadlock further endangers the overall functioning of government.
Some of what he said was obvious, but seems lost in today’s Capitol Hill dysfunction.
Take “trust” as a foundation of the democratic political system. When is the last time Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, spoke about mutual trust?
Michel referred to how Foley, when he became speaker, recommended that they meet weekly — one week in his office, the next in Michel’s. There they discussed House affairs, but “underlying … was the faith and trust we had in each other,” Michel said. “I don’t think there is anything more important in the relationship between political leaders than trust,” he added.
What about the current practice of not bringing matters up for a vote in the Republican-controlled House or the Democratic-run Senate if the leader of the body fears his side might lose.
Michel recalled Foley’s decision to allow open debate and a vote in January 1991 on a joint resolution to authorize then-President George H.W. Bush to use U.S. troops to drive Iraq President Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait. Michel, who was the chief sponsor of the resolution, had some Democratic co-sponsors, but, he said, Foley and a large number of other Democrats opposed it.
Michel called it “an exercise of political courage and personal decency for Foley to agree to bring the resolution up for open debate and recorded vote under those circumstances.”
That vote on Jan. 12, 1991, ended with a 250 to 183 victory for Michel’s side, with only 86 of 267 Democrats voting for it. Had he lost, Michel said, “I would have been proud of the House and the speaker regardless, because the House demonstrated to the world that it was a deliberative and democratic body.”
When is the last time you heard someone refer to the current House as a “deliberative and democratic body”?
Michel then turned to another lost element of the Washington political scene: how politicians treat each other. When Foley and he could not find common ground on a subject, “we could at least use common courtesy in the way we conducted our politics. That’s not just good manners, it’s good politics,” Michel said.
When recently have you heard members of Congress show concern about how their institutions are viewed by the public and say, as Michel did on Oct. 29, “The way we argue can be as important in the long run as the decisions we reach.”
Today’s legislators are in perpetual campaigns, but he and Foley, Michel said, “knew there would always be a distinction and separation between campaigning for office and serving in office.”
They were, he said, “Pupils of the old school,” where Foley felt a member of Congress had three essential jobs — to deliberate on issues, debate them and be effective serving constituents.
Michel didn’t mention the filibustering of Sens. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, or Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, or other antics of some House and Senate members, but it wasn’t necessary when he noted, “If you want to be effective in the House, you can’t go around shouting your principles; you have to subject those principles to the test of open debate against those who do not share those principles.”
True debate, he said, “is not possible unless the golden rule is applied; which simply means unless you treat your fellow members the way you yourself want to be treated. Tom followed that rule and practiced it.”
Michel referred to Foley’s dedication to the “preservation and protection” of the House as a great institution, clearly something he too holds dear. He used an old phrase in describing Foley as “a gentleman of the House, a fair and honest broker [as speaker], and a worthy adversary.”
In closing, Michel said he hoped that because of Foley’s “great love for this institution that his spirit will dwell here forever.”
Then he came as close as he would to dealing with the low esteem to which his beloved House has fallen. “I only hope the legislators who now walk through here [Statuary Hall] each day, so consumed by the here and now, will feel his spirit, learn from it and be humbled by it,” Michel said.
In 1994, Foley lost his seat. Both he and Michel, who had decided not to run, had a final moment together Nov. 29, 1994. Republicans had won enough seats to take over the Congress in the next session, and symbolically Foley had Michel take the chair as acting speaker — the first Republican to be on that podium in 40 years — while Foley made his farewell speech.
Michel recalled that, standing together, “we knew that we were icons of a bygone era.”
If only we had iconic leader relationships like that today.
Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post.